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Becoming a remote-first workplace? 4 insights from our experience

At the start of the pandemic, thousands of US companies were forced to adopt remote and hybrid work models. Now, more than two years in, many companies are ready to return to the office – but many workers are not.

In fact, a recent survey found that only three percent of knowledge workers want to return to offices five days per week. And with the Great Resignation in full swing, employers are wise to accommodate their workers’ wishes – especially because embracing remote work means they can recruit talent from a much broader pool.

Still, becoming a remote-first org isn’t easy. At TXI, we’ve taken the same product innovation approach to our transition that we use to develop innovative products for our clients. Here are four key lessons we’ve learned from our process – which actually started before March 2020.

Background: 10 phases of remote-first work

Before we get into the insights we’ve gathered from our transition to remote-first work, it’s worth getting on the same page about what remote-first work can look like. GitLab maintains a robust resource outlining 10 models of remote and hybrid work, defining them as follows:

  1. No remote
  2. Remote time / remote tolerated
  3. Remote exceptions
  4. Remote allowed
  5. Hybrid-remote
  6. Remote days
  7. Remote first
  8. Remote only
  9. All remote
  10. Strictly remote

In 2012, TXI was in phase three (remote exceptions): a few of our team members who had previously worked in our Chicago offices moved away and stayed on staff. Today, we’re in phase seven (remote first): our organization is optimized for fully distributed work, though some people choose to work in the WeWork space in downtown Chicago.

We started moving through the phases before the pandemic struck, but, like many other organizations, the pandemic accelerated our shift. Here’s what we’ve learned in the two years since its start.

1. Solving the library problem: A universally accessible hub for knowledge

On our first day of forced remote work in March 2020, it became immediately clear that we had a library problem. Information was stored in Google drives, in shared drives, in GitHub, on whiteboards, in people’s heads. Even if you’d worked for us for several years, it was tricky to navigate, and it was much harder if you were new. It became nearly impossible when we could no longer easily ask each other where to find something.

So we recognized that we needed a standardized, consistent way to store and organize information. What's more, we had to make sure that everyone had equal access to that information, regardless of where they were located.

We landed on Notion, but choosing a system is just the first part of solving the library problem. Just as important is creating protocols for filing information, enforcing those protocols, and helping a team build the new muscles of storing information correctly so that anyone can access it from anywhere.

2. Solving the tooling problem: Replacements for whiteboards and sticky notes

We’re not the only organization that embraced Miro and Zoom when it was clear our old standbys (whiteboards, Sharpies, sticky notes) wouldn’t work in an all-remote setting.

What was most interesting to us about our transition, though, was not the specific software we found to replace what we’d relied on in person, but the ways digital alternatives affected our work.

The upsides are many:

  • When we brainstorm, every idea we generate is stored somewhere that’s accessible to everyone.
  • Nobody has to take notes and then upload them somewhere.
  • Nobody has to take pictures of our whiteboards and sticky notes and then transcribe them later.

In other words, there's no extra effort required to capture and distribute the ideas we generate. This makes our work more accessible, which is great for both people working on a project and colleagues who want to learn from it later.

The generative sessions themselves are also more accessible. Pre-COVID, we often gathered in person, which necessitated time-consuming travel and had less-than-ideal participation options for folks who stayed remote. Now, we work from wherever we already are.

But there are downsides to these tools, as well.

Miro (or any software to replace whiteboards) is a tool that users have to learn. Whereas most people can naturally pick up a pen, draw on a sticky note, and put it on a whiteboard, there's a learning curve to using software.

There’s also a spark lost when you’re not in person together. Momentum and energy build differently in a shared space than in a virtual space.

This brings us to another problem of shifting to remote-first work that we’re still figuring out.

3. Deciding why we gather

From the start, TXI has prioritized gathering in person. In 2012, when we were still in phase three of the shift to remote, we invested in a downtown Chicago office with a commercial kitchen where an in-house chef made us lunch every day.

We were intentional about taking time away from our desks to break bread together because we understood that doing so was an effective way to prevent the expensive knowledge silos that can develop at a company like ours.

But we started to outgrow that space in the years leading up to the pandemic. Meeting rooms were hard to secure. More and more people were working from home and from non-Chicago locations.

Still, we made a point of gathering for quarterly all-company meetings, where we’d share big company updates and generally check-in.

And then the pandemic hit.

In the early days, we tried to preserve much of what we’d had in office. We had our chef continue to cook meals and deliver them around Chicago and Illinois.

And while we sent meal provisions to employees in other parts of the world, the level of care wasn’t the same. In our effort to show care for our team, we ended up treating people really differently based on their location, which was not the kind of message we wanted to send as we intentionally shifted to being remote-first.

Our next attempt was to secure a WeWork space in downtown Chicago. We secured space based on employee surveys and how many days people expected they’d use the space.

But it mostly sits empty. What we discovered is that our user research didn’t account for subsequent waves of the pandemic that affected people’s willingness to leave their homes to work. And quite honestly, we the users may have overestimated our desire to commute again.

Now, we’re considering other options for gathering in person. One thing that’s clear, though, is that gatherings will look different from how they looked in the past. There are actually advantages to having all-company meetings virtually. When they’re virtual, it’s easier to…

  • Record and access the meetings later.
  • Bring in external speakers.
  • See the agenda and take notes.

And while there's no substitute for the energy of being in person, all-virtual events prevent the problem of having just a handful of attendees dialing in with a terrible AV experience.

We’re considering a few ideas, but we’re also aware that it may take a while to find what works, and that we may evolve to another stage of remote work during the process. But that’s okay. Because we’re deliberately approaching this transition with a product innovation mindset, we recognize that not all of our experiments will work. But if we’re approaching them in the right way, we can learn something.

4. Solving the listening problem: Digital replacements for body language and chance encounters

When we were all in the same space, it was easy enough to walk into the kitchen and see how people were doing: who was stressed out, who had an exciting idea, who was working on a tough problem. Mark could go into the kitchen and say, “Ask me anything. What do you want to talk about in our next company meeting?”

In person, we knew how to listen, both to what people were saying and to what they weren’t.

Remotely, it was much harder to pick up on the latter.

We sent out surveys to replace those spontaneous kitchen conversations, but what we found was that the surveys didn’t accurately reflect people’s desires. For example, in one early survey, the topic that got the most votes was office space: our plans for reopening.

But then we moved the answers into an app called Thought Exchange, which lets people anonymously upvote ideas they like. Suddenly, anxiety and mental health (mentioned by only one or two people in the survey) were the top two issues people wanted to discuss. Office space was third from the bottom.

This was very enlightening and highlighted for us just how different in-person and digital conversations are. While we won’t claim that we’ve fully solved the problem of listening in a remote-first workplace, we have come a long way toward recognizing that we have to make a deliberate effort to get the full story.

Applying product innovation principles to our shift to remote work

We’ve come a long way in being a remote-first company since 2012, and especially since March 2020. And we’re still learning as we go.

What's been helpful throughout our evolution is that we’re all familiar with the product innovation approach to solving problems, which means we’re all receptive to the reality that ours is an ongoing process that involves listening, experimenting, failing, learning from failure, and trying again.

Interested in reading about other ways we’ve applied product innovation principles to our evolution as a company? Check out our post about how we restructured our internal org chart with a product innovation approach.

Published by Mark Rickmeier in Distributed Workforce

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